Monday, August 24, 2009

Character First Impressions

Since it's Monday, I thought I'd bring up character first impressions. This post was inspired by Yat-Yee Chong's post on characters with unusual combinations.

A criticism I hate getting from readers is that I have made a character do something that really doesn't make sense, given their personality. This always makes me defensive. After all, I created the character. I should know her, it, or him better than anyone else. And, most likely, I do know the character better than anyone else, and she, it, or he would do something like that...I just didn't make that clear in the story.

What this comes down to (and Yat-Yee describes this well) is that readers are experiencing our characters in the sequence of the story, whereas we writers have the luxury of seeing all of the material that happens throughout our character's lifetimes, not just what's on the page. So, how can we provide these clues to our reader before they feel betrayed?

That's where the first impression comes in. As readers are discovering each character in our story, they are comparing them with one another, with real people in their lives, and probably with themselves. And, because most people attempt to understand things as soon as possible, they create judgments based on the first impressions.

If readers get three consecutive scenes where Albert is afraid of water, they will be suspicious if Albert suddenly dives off the pier to save is alien boyfriend from drowning. But, if Albert's first three scenes include one where he refuses to go into the water, one where he jumps cautiously into the deep end of the pool, and one where he sits on the edge of the pool with his feet dangling in the water, we're not quite as sure of what he'll do next. He may be willing to save Sbortfa'an, or he may have to hope that Sbortfa'an's alien family is nearby to do the saving for him...and that they aren't allergic to water. Albert now has a larger dynamic range with which we can work with.

If you want to have a character who is capable of performing a wider range of actions, I think you have to hint at the character's full range of possibilities early on, especially during those beginning pages where readers are shaping their first impressions of the character (the first 17 pages, to be exact*). If we establish absolute personality traits for a character, then I think we have to accept that they are going to stay that way unless some external force comes in later on to change them (and, naturally, this is one great way to develop a character).

Now, of course, this can work both ways. If we are systematic and plan ahead, if we know what we want our characters to do at the end before we have written the beginning, then we can plant the seeds to show what they are capable of. But, hopefully, the reader's experience will be the same whether we plan this forwards or backwards. Either way, we don't want to limit our characters' range unless that limitation is something that will help us later on.

Strange combinations of character traits can help us with this wide dynamic range. The example I've used before is Brod from Jonathan Safran Foer's book Everything Is Illuminated. Brod is an orphan girl in a Jewish town, and every man (and a few women) are desperately attracted to her. Yet, Foer describes Brod is short and skinny, to the point of looking perpetually sick. These are not traits that we usually associate with attractiveness, and because of that, Foer is able to create a character who is capable of more. She's both ugly and attractive at the same time. Foer hasn't committed her to being one or the other.

So, when sending your characters along their story trajectories, make sure you reveal their whole range of capabilities. Trapping them into a single personality type often means that you'll have to rely on an external force to change the character or do the character's work later on.

*Yes, it's 17 pages. Decades of scientific evidence have proven this without a doubt. Without a doubt!


  1. Great topic, Davin. I have a tendency (so I've recently learned) to make my characters too confident. Part of showing their whole realm of capabilities (again, as I'm learning) is showing their vulnerabilities nestled right against their strengths.

    Dimensional characters. Yes, very important.

  2. Good post. This is something I struggle with. When do you draw the lines, telling the reader to loko between them for more?

    To me, the motivations are addressed through the story, sometimes more directly than others.

    This almost opens up the whole "what is literary" debate because one of the most common answers to that question is that literary works exist beyond the words on the pages.

    I haven't read Everything is Illuminated. Could it be that the differences in Brod's appearance are due to shifts in POV, i.e. from an internal POV she is the ugly duckling but from an external POV she is attractive?

  3. I just realized I wasn't following Yat-Yee! What a mistake. I read her post, and it's definitely inspiration worthy material.

    I'm going out on a limb here and saying that I don't have this problem with creating characters who do unbelievable things not true to them later in the story. Like I commented in Yat-Yee's post, I like to create characters that seem like one thing on the outside, but are something else on the inside. I usually set this up really early in the book (yes, the first 17 pages).

    I think one of the really important things we must do for ALL of our character's actions, is make sure they are explained somehow, even if that explanation is that they did something spur of the moment and they weren't thinking. Otherwise you might have a character that feels more like a robot that's being manipulated, you know?

    I think these explanations can span beyond the first 17 pages as long as we have, as you say , established the character well enough.

    Davin, I think this can go right back to mapping things out. If we don't have a plan for the story, things kind of fall apart. I think writing the first draft without a map is great - that's where we learn who are character is and what they would do in these situations we're putting them in, but then I think mapping out when all those actions work for the character can really help the story and characters feel tighter. Feel free to argue, as I know you're not a huge mapping person.

  4. Nice post. It's true that if a characters acts a certain way 9/10 times, your readers won't be happy that remaining 1 time.

  5. Great post. You already know about how I feel about characters suddenly doing something out of character. Heck, I devoted a whole post to that topic not long ago.

    Characters need to be consistent in their actions.

    I also don't think you (or maybe only me) can totally instill what a character is going to do within the first few chapters of the book. I think we (again, maybe only me) can give the readers a sense of the characters in the first few chapters, but not the whole picture. It's just like when you meet someone you like - you know you like them, but you don't know everything about them. It is only over time that you discover more about that friend, and I think it's the same way with characters.


  6. Great points. I definitely subscribe to the spoon feeding method, even in character development.

  7. Tess, that's really interesting! I'm also jealous, my characters seem to always lack confidence. But, I think that hits on another post about revealing ourselves in our work.

    Rick, We're not opening up that debate. At least not on this post. But, I think you're right about revealing what's between the lines. To show what a character is capable of doesn't mean having to show everything that a character has done in the past. Regarding Brod, it wasn't a matter of POV shift. Foer just set up this interesting contradiction, that worked well for me personally.

    Michelle, a lot of good points here. And, yes, Yat-Yee is definitely worth following. I agree with what you say about the mapping, but I also think it can work if you don't map. For me, a non-mapper, I set up the range of possibilities, and then as I progress through my story, I look back at what I've written before to get clues to what my characters are capable of.

    Justus, Thanks!

    Scott, that's a really good point about creating a sense of the character rather than laying out everything that a character is capable of. I didn't mention that subtlety directly, but I should have!

    ElanaJ, Spoonfeeding is a great way of doing things, isn't it? :)

  8. Thanks. I'm going to explore more seriously the character development in my old WIP I'm editing now. I certainly don't wan to short change my MC.

  9. A lot of this is more-or-less just foreshadowing. Big plot events should be hinted at beforehand, and so should big character events. I read somewhere that the first scene of the book should reflect the climax in some way, even if it's just a hint. In my rewritten first chapter, I have included some dialogue and internal monologue that is very similar to dialogue/thoughts that are found in the climactic scene of the book.

    It's also very important (and I think this is something Yat-Yee gets at) that our characters aren't one-dimensional and utterly predictable. If we give them conflicting characteristics at the outset, they can do surprising things that remain "in character." In other words, I'm merely paraphrasing Davin.

  10. Sometimes, I don't completely know a character I've created myself until the first draft is done.

    What would she do? What wouldn't she do?

    Sometimes the character will surprise me. But if her actions surprise the reader too much (and not in a good way) then I probably need to go back through the story and reveal more about her, so that her actions ring true.

    Writing against the stereotype is hard, too. And developing all characters realistically, not just the MC.

    A character's imperfections/quirks are what make that character come alive.


  11. Davin, something that I struggle with is, I want my characters, especially the young MG girls to be strong.

    I set them up so that the readers first impression of my character is, "Wow. What a strong, passionate person." I have trouble seeing the fact that they must have other things that make them characters. Problems, fears, real feelings like you and I have. They are not super heroes.

    I want them to have many sides. But I tend to think the readers want them to be perfect. That's just not true. Readers want them to be like they are.

    This has been very helpful to me today. Thanks Davin! :)

  12. Veerdrie MacFeerdonAugust 24, 2009 at 2:51 PM

    "A criticism I hate getting from readers is that I have made a character do something that really doesn't make sense, given their personality." Now you know how I feel about the raised t-shirt in the OPIUM piece.

    About Albert. Fight-or-flight. General Adaptive Syndrome. A man watches his son being swept away in the Mississippi River during a huge flood. He jumps in to save him and immediately drowns. His friends don't understand why he jumped in as he never knew how to swim.

  13. T. Anne, I thinking opening up a range of possibilities for your character will also make it more fun to write!

    Scott, I don't know why, but the term foreshadowing is always something I shied away from. But, I think you're right that this is what I'm talking about. Maybe my conflict comes from that backwards and forwards thing. I don't plan my stories ahead of time, but I do eventually think about things like foreshadowing in my revisions.

    Shelley, I'm with you. I am often discovering the characters as I write them, which is one reason I think I try to keep my options open from the beginning. I like the way you put that.

    Robyn, that's an interesting example. It sounds a lot like what Tess mentioned. That's really fascinating to me because I tend to start off focusing on the negative aspects of my characters and then I have to work to redeem them. Two sides of the coin!

    Veerdrie, we should always jump for love.

  14. "Veerdrie" has an excellent point that I think gets lost all too often: real people do unpredictable things all the time. Or, unpredictable when viewed from certain angles, anyway. A lot of current behavioral scientific thought revolves around the idea that actions aren't arrived at rationally anyway. We act, and then make up a story to explain our actions to ourselves. Emotion-of-the-moment can't be discounted.

  15. Scott, I don't know if this will make sense, but I feel like one point I lumped in with the rest of the post is that we can create a character capable of being unpredictable by giving clues of this unpredictability. Some non-swimmers are capable of jumping into the water, and I'd say that some are so preprogrammed that they wouldn't. It's a great point to emphasize.

  16. That's true that people do unpredictable things all the time, but I see what you're saying, Davin, that we need to establish a character capable of that because fiction isn't reality, and everything needs to happen for a reason we give, a reason that moves the story forward, or a reason that makes the character more believable. That last part might sound like an oxymoron, hmmm...

  17. Davin: I think (now that I read back through the post when I'm not sleepy and coffee-deprived) you did make that point. What I think I was saying is that in real life, we don't get those clues. But as Michelle says, real life isn't fiction and fiction generally has to be more self-contained. Though for some reason that idea really bothers me today. Perhaps I'm having an allergic reaction to working on my own book. I'm tired of thinking about motivation and character. I want all my characters to just get drunk and ride off to slay imaginary dragons.

  18. Scott, I think you need to take a break, seriously. When you've reached that point where you've converged your fictional reality too much into your reality, things get a bit fuzzy. That can be a dangerous place to be after too much editing!

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  20. Character consistency is only important to me if an inconsistency is so HUGE, is so unbelievable, that I feel like a character has suddenly become someone else. Sort of like a Deus Ex Machina but in the character's personality.

    The best example of this I can think of (in a film): the end of The Mist. So unbelievable, so ridiculous that I was sorry I'd watched the whole movie. It seems the creators wanted a specific ending, so instead of crafting characters that would naturally yield that ending, the creators right-at-the-end made the main character do a complete 180 in personality to give the ending the creators wanted.

  21. FP, ah, The Mist! The ending of that drove me crazy, esp. because it was different from King's story. All the same, I think as a horror movie, it was a good ending.

    Davin, I read this early in the morning and waited all day to comment to see if the discussion here would give me something to say other than "this is a really good post." But, I don't have much to say but to agree with you.

    I hope to be able to reveal my characters better. They always start off whiny AND self-righteous, which is horrible, and then they have a hard time changing. My characters need a lot of work.

  22. Michelle, I don't think it's a contradiction that we have to create unreal characters to make them seem real. That's probably the medium serving as a filter in some way. It makes the art more interesting, doesn't it? :)

    Scott, I've been having the same sense of annoyance with that idea of reality not fitting into writing. It's an interesting problem, as I said above to Michelle. It irks me, and yet I like the challenge of dealing with it.

    F.P. I think you're right that the magnitude of the surprise is a consideration. I'm sure if a character does something I didn't expect on a smaller scale, I probably wouldn't be pulled out of the fiction.

    Annie, that's hilarious! Well, you sound extremely thoughtful and passionate about creating quality fiction. If indeed you are having problems with your characters, I have no doubt that you will be able to fix that.

  23. Just the post I needed. Thanks, Davin. :)

  24. Thanks, Davin! You made my whole day.

  25. Great post and great discussion. And thanks, Davin and Michelle, for being so kind about my blog. I'm thrilled to have hit a chord somewhere with you, or at least one or two notes. (Can't take the musician out of a girl.)

    Davin: you said everything so much more elegantly.

    After reading all the comments and thinking about it some more, I realize that, for me at least, trying to figure out where fiction reflects reality (in real life people do unexpected things all the time and it should come as no surprise that fictional characters do as well) and when it needs to differ (scott used the phrase "self-contained", and I like that) is the key to addressing the question.

    You've exactly right: the introduction of a character has to contain seeds of the eventual unexpected actions. Unlike in real life, there is an unspoken trust that the reader places on the writer, that things won't just happen nilly-willy, that the story, with all its unpredictability, has to make some sense, at some level; that it exists within some recognizable boundaries, no matter how wide. Otherwise, writers can just throw a bunch of people and events together and call it a story or a novel. And why would any reader be interested in that?

  26. Oh and I forgot: the number 17. Isn't it great that a nondescript number like 17 has so much power?

    When I was studying piano pedagogy, my mentor wanted us to prepare our students so well that their first reading of a new piece of music should be free of mistakes. The reason? Studies had shown that if a pianist made an initial mistake, it took 17 correct and continuous repetitions to undo the mistake.

    That led me down a path with so many mistakes made in teaching that I could write a book...hey, wait a minute.

    No, I don't know if it is indeed true, but as a twentysomething learning at the feet of someone with great passion and intelligence and conviction: she ain't gonna question nuttin'.

  27. Great post. I mostly agree with you on this, except that I think characters can surprise themselves (and the readers). The challenge is that if they do something "out of character", you'll need to provide a reason strong enough to explain it. For example, if your character is a murdering fiend who suddenly saves someone from death, you'll need a believable explanation as to why. The 17 page count value sounds appropriate though.

  28. OK, I'm late to get back in the mix, but for the record I loved what Frank Darabont did with the ending of THE MIST (and he had Stephen King's blessing).

    The tragedy of his action, the desperation he shows by trying to save his son the only way he can think of (quick death vs suffering), and the irony in the fact that it was all for naught. For me it made the movie.

  29. It's hard to take when someone finds my main character unrelatable, but it's good to know so I can analyze what I did wrong. Thanks for the great info!

  30. Rick, I purposefully didn't spoil the ending--you should have put up a warning first!

    I completely disagree on the ending. When a character spends 99% of a movie acting like Ripley in the first two Alien movies and then suddenly right at the end becomes the antiRipley there--that's nonsense. Nearly all of The Mist was like Aliens and then at the very end it became Alien 3; the tone was off because two very different films were combined into one--the ending for a different movie was tacked on.

    (Alien 3 spoiler)

    The creators of the Alien series could get away with this because the movies were separate; even still, many people complained about the third one's ending, when I think that was silly as expecting the same character would never succumb to such a dangerous organism after repeated contact--that's illogical. The third movie's ending fit that movie's hopeless dark tone and the logic of the whole series.

    With The Mist, a single whole movie, that just isn't the case. I think the creators wanted a hopeless ironic ending, so they stuck it on a not-hopeless not-ironic toned film. Someone who struggles to survive and save his offspring so constantly, so single-mindedly and with such passion, would not suddenly kill his offspring. That would be like Ripley killing not-even-her-offspring Newt in Aliens--nonsense! The ending of The Mist was done for shock value and because the creators suddenly thought they were Kafka, suddenly became fake arty and wanted an arty ironic ending. That didn't fit the commercial feel of the movie's bulk.

    The Mist isn't an arty story. King isn't an arty writer; that movie shouldn't have had an arty ending added. It's just silly, not to mention grossly offensive in content. Both my partner and I at the exact same ending moment looked at each other and went, "Huh? What?" We thought there was some mistake, that no one could be so stupid as to ruin what had been such a good movie with such a ridiculous ending. Now, whenever we see a hopeless ending out of left field like this, we both go, "It's like The Mist!" The movie's become a running joke in this household.

    Why King agreed to that change--I don't know what he was thinking. I think that was a mistake. But if Darabont had to get King's blessing--that supports what I said: the story's ending was tacked on afterward and by someone else. Darabont should have left the original ending, whatever that was. He probably ruined the logic of the overall story.

    I guess we'll have to agree to disagree on this.


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